From the first time that I started digging more deeply into what Patagonia is all about, I have admired the company. Climber and anti-hero of business, founder Yvon Choinard has been ahead of the game in sustainability before many others even knew there was a game. He’s (kind of) the hipster of sustainability, he was doing it first, before it was in, and he doesn’t even know that that is necessarily, officially, what he’s doing. He just does it. Some might even say he, himself, is just “organically” and spontaneously sustainable (really laying on the layers of natural-ness here).
In light of this – in light of of the commitments to low carbon emissions, smaller footprint, nature-friendly climbing gear, founding membership of Fair Labor Association, in light of the living wages, incredible employee treatment, and because of the sustainable sourcing of materials, I find criticism of the company surprising. Patagonia won my heart despite their incredibly high prices and the somewhat preppy culture that has developed around the wearing of their products. But I am proven naive.
In August, 2015 PETA released a video taken at the operation sites of one of Patagonia’s suppliers, Ovis 21. The company supplies wool, and as such the video is of sheep. Sheep having legs broken. Sheep with entrails hanging out as they walked about. Sheep being slaughtered, or having their tails cut off quickly and efficiently, but without much overt mercy. Sheep starting to be skinned as they still flail, bleeding out (whether because of twitching nerves, or by conscious movement, it is hard to determine). There are scenes of sheep being punched and kicked, and all in all of sheep having what must amount to a pretty terrifying life and death. Now, I have helped to slaughter chickens, and I’ve had to put a roadside deer out of its misery, and I’ve felt the fear, heat, and life emanating and draining from these beings as they cast about helplessly. It’s a horrid feeling, and though I would do it again if I needed to, I would hate it. That said, I’ve still done it. Yet my stomach still turns about the treatment of sheep being sheared, beaten and handled without care as they are used to keep us warm, and I wonder if the killing process couldn’t eliminate the element of consciousness on the part of the animal being slaughtered if at all possible (a maul-induced unconsciousness would be preferable) or if an air gun could be purchased. Since one of Patagonia’s key phrases is to “Cause no unnecessary harm,” and elements of the treatment of the animals are most definitely unnecessary, this seems out of place.
And so I am left with this dilemma; the company I have hailed as a paragon of responsibility is also responsible for pain and suffering, restricted by no means to sheep, since the Atlantic published an article concerning the labor/human trafficking happening within the Taiwanese second-tier mills that Patagonia uses as well. The sourcing is not responsible completely, and many are glad that Patagonia no long purchases wool from Ovis 21, and that they are working to cut ties with more mills in order to have more control over conditions. On the other hand, I consider the livelihood of the workers at Ovis 21, and those at the mills cuts from the supplier list, and wonder about the responsibility of those actions as well. Who gets to decide?
Bottom line: Patagonia his dealing with problems endemic to globalization. Can it be avoided? They may be handling these problems better than Apple or others, but the issues, pain and hardship are present nonetheless. They are faced with some tough choices, and I am faced with confronting my delusions of total responsibility and sustainability in the supply chain of one of my hero companies.
Image of Lambs on one of Ovis 21’s farms: http://qz.com/479984/patagonia-and-another-ethical-clothing-brand-are-being-accused-of-a-new-kind-of-animal-cruelty/